Saturday, June 2, was National Trails Day, which is not only the harbinger for the beginning of summer, but also reminds us dog owners that one of the best experiences we can share with our furry friends is an outdoor trail adventure.
If you’re properly prepared, the benefits of hiking with your dog are immeasurable. Hiking can be great therapy for a dog that is exhibiting boredom-based bad behavior at home such as shoe chewing, lawn digging, or gratuitous barking. Remember, a tired dog is a good dog — and hiking is a great exercise for humans as well as beasts.
Part of the fun of hiking with your dog is watching her get excited by the new smells and varying terrains. She can introduce you to interesting aspects of nature you were previously unaware of. Humans have been trekking with dogs for thousands of years, and it may be one of the best ways to strengthen the dog-human bond.
Another advantage is that hiking is relatively inexpensive and requires little or no experience. Nonetheless, here are some tips to keep your dog and yourself as safe as possible.
1. Dog Health
Make sure your dog’s vaccinations are up-to-date before you hit the trail. It’s always a good idea to have your veterinarian give your dog a checkup to make sure she’s in good health. If your dog is not used to long treks, build endurance with shorter hikes before attempting longer, more difficult ones.
2. Find the Right Trail
Make sure your hike is in a park or open space that allows dogs. National and regional parks are typically more dog-friendly than state parks. Do your research and familiarize yourself with any restrictions such as which areas of the parks allow dogs, and whether they have to be leashed at all times.
A well-mannered dog can be a great trail mate, so it’s best if your dog is well trained on the leash before you bring her on a long hike. Many experienced hikers advise never taking your dog off-leash even if it’s allowed, because too many things can go wrong. Even the best-trained dogs can ignore voice commands and bound after a squirrel through bushes or shrubs, which can be dangerous to the dog and damaging to sensitive off-trail habitats.
I live near a large regional park that allows dogs off-leash in its backcountry areas, but I am very careful to make sure the trail is clear before letting him off. If I can’t see a good distance ahead, I always leash my dog in case there are horse riders, cyclists, off-leash dogs, or hikers with children around the corner.
Always be aware what kind of wildlife is present, particularly if your dog is smaller. Coyotes will attempt to lure away small dogs so they can be attacked by the pack. Deer and elk, despite their nonaggressive reputations, can cause serious damage by kicking with their back legs.
Rattlesnakes are present in all of the lower 48 states. Even though they are shy and more afraid of us then we are of them, they can be found almost anywhere, including in lakes and rivers. It’s best to keep your dog away from piles of dead branches, fallen trees, and grassy areas near creeks, streams, or other water sources.
The chances of encountering a mountain lion are extremely low, but if one happens to be around, your dog can make a tempting meal if it’s running unleashed through the bush. If bears are in the area, you should absolutely keep your dog on-leash. The last thing you want is your dog to annoy a bear and then run back to you with the angry bear in hot pursuit. Other critters you want to avoid are porcupines and skunks, which may not be so dangerous, but can quickly ruin the day’s outing.
5. Dog Backpacks
Packs are a great way for dogs to burn extra energy during a hike and give them a sense of purpose. My dog seems to hold his head a little higher when wearing his pack.
Make sure you get the right size — if the doggy backpack is too small or too large, it can cause discomfort and even injury. Get your dog used to it by letting him wear the empty pack on short walks in the neighborhood.
Younger and healthier working-type dogs can carry up to 25 percent of their body weight. For most dogs, 10 to 15 percent is plenty, which is usually enough for them to bring along their own water and kibble. Consult your vet before taking your dog on a long hike with a full backpack.
6. First Aid
Even for short hikes, it’s a good idea to bring basic first aid supplies like gauze pads, bandage tape, topical disinfectant, tweezers (for ticks and porcupine quills). Keep your vet or emergency vet’s phone number on speed dial.
Dogs get dehydrated much faster than humans do, so bring plenty of water and a collapsible bowl.
Many hikers let their dogs drink out of creeks and lakes, but they risk ingesting the giardia parasite, which settles in the small intestine and can wreak havoc on your dog’s system. If you allow your dog to drink from a creek, purify the water first.
If the trail will take you to higher elevations, ascend at a slow and steady pace and make sure both of you drink plenty of water.
Watch your dog closely for signs of altitude sickness. If she is panting heavily or slowing down, consider heading back down the trail or at least giving her a long rest. Dogs want to please their owners and will try to tough it out, so it’s up to us to make sure they are not overdoing it.
9. Poop Bags
Bring ’em. Use ’em. Pack ’em out.
10. After the Hike
Thoroughly check your dog for cuts or injuries as well as ticks, which can carry Lyme disease. Dogs burn energy faster than humans, so you keep kibble handy so your happy, trail-weary dog can have a little nosh before you head home.